Ethiopia is the original home of coffee. Folklore has it that the stimulatory effects of the wild Coffea arabica bean were first experienced in the ninth century by a goatherd called Kaldi, who lived in the forested Kaffa region of western Ethiopia. When Kaldi’s goats became unusually frisky after feeding on one particular shrub in the forest understory, he ate a few if its berries himself, and found they had a similarly invigorating effect on him. Soon after, it had become customary for Orthodox Christians to chew the arabica beans before overnight prayers. And a few years later, some monks mixed the ground roast beans into hot water, thus inventing the energizing beverage we now know as coffee – a name that derives from Kaffa.
By the mid-fifteenth century, coffee had made its way across the Red Sea to Yemen and the rest of Arabia. Here, it was actively cultivated for export to Asia and eventually Europe, where consumption took off in the seventeenth century, after the initially controversial Muslim import received a papal blessing as suitable for Christians. Today, Ethiopia is one of the world’s top ten producers of coffee, which is mostly grown at a subsistence level and contributes to the livelihood of around one-quarter of the population. Some 40 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee is consumed domestically, but exports account for more than 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
Ethiopians are ardent coffee drinkers. Known locally as bunna, strong espresso-style coffee is served in most restaurants and hotels throughout Ethiopia. It usually comes black, with sugar on the side, but by request most places will serve latte-style bunna watat, literally “coffee milk”. In homes, and with increasing frequency in restaurants, the unfiltered brew is also served in traditional coffee ceremonies, which involve roasting fresh beans over charcoal, then grinding them while the water boils and incense is burned. The grounds are brewed up in a traditional black clay jebena pot, and three successively weaker rounds are poured, the last of which confers a blessing on everybody present.